The idea is straight out of science fiction — to send travelers in a capsule from Los Angeles to San Francisco within half an hour, zipping through special tubes near the speed of sound.
That’s the basic concept behind Hyperloop, the high-speed transportation system envisioned by U.S. billionaire and SpaceX founder Elon Musk.
Up to now, though, the technology has been little more than an idea and sketches. And critics have mocked Mr. Musk’s plans for transporting people and goods via giant pneumatic-like tubes, calling them downright crazy.
German companies and university students are also working to help make high-speed tube transportation a reality.
At a high-tech workshop near Munich Technical University, for instance, a 37-person team of students is building a working model for the Hyperloop system. The capsules use magnetic hovering technology to travel through an almost airless tube.
Mr. Musk, who also co-founded the electric car company Tesla, went public with his idea three years ago. At the time, he predicted Hyperloop would become a fifth means of transportation, after airplanes, rail, vehicles and ships.
If it succeeds, the technology could revolutionize mobility: High-speed trains might become superfluous and air travel would only make sense for very long distances.
The technology could revolutionize mobility: High-speed trains might become superfluous and air travel would only make sense for long distances.
Mr. Musk calculates the cost of building the 350-mile tube between Los Angeles and San Francisco at about $6 billion (€5.4 billion).
But he doesn’t want to build the stilt-supported tubes himself. Instead he has encouraged others to get involved in developing the technology, including a worldwide student competition. The top 30 groups — including the Munich team as the sole German participant – will test their Hyperloop capsules with dummies on board later this summer in Los Angeles.
For two U.S. firms — Hyperloop Transportation Technologies and Hyperloop One — the project is more than a competition, but also a serious business venture.
HTT plans to build a five-mile test route in California this year. Its rival Hyperloop One intends to be finished already by the end of the year. In mid-May, the company had a successful short test run in the Nevada desert.
As the Americans press ahead technologically, large and mid-sized German companies don’t want to be left on the sidelines. They are also taking entrepreneurial risks in the Hyperloop project, which some critics compare to Germany’s failed Transrapid project, a magnetic-suspension railway.
Engineering and electrical giant Siemens, for example, provided control engineering for the first mini-test in the desert.
Deutsche Bahn subsidiary, DG Engineering & Consulting, is doing analysis for Hyperloop One to determine if it makes economic sense to transport freight by tube on the Arabian Peninsula.
And Knorr-Bremse, the Munich-based world leader in braking systems, is also involved. Company sources say discussions have been held with Hyperloop One on how high-speed capsules could be stopped safely.
But first the Hyperloop capsule must be able hover and move. This is to be achieved by magnets on the capsule that move within a magnetic field above copper rails. The Hyperloop is supposed to achieve a top speed of 1,220 kilometers per hour, or about 760 mph. By comparison, Germany’s fastest train, the ICE 3, can reach 330 kpm (205 mph).
According to the concept, Hyperloop transportation would be very energy-efficient due to a lack of air resistance in the low-pressure tubes.
Cologne-based vacuum specialist Oerlikon Leybold Vacuum, a subsidiary of Swedish mechanical engineering firm Atlas Copco, is working on technology to make that possible.
In Cologne, Carl Brockmeyer coordinates the firm’s involvement in the Hyperloop project. “It’s definitely possible to build the vacuum required for operations,” he said.
Oerlikon Leybold sent two pumps to HTT last February, and plans to send 30 more. Pumps for the short test route are said to cost around $5 million. HTT calculates that the total facility would cost almost $150 million.
Later in commercial application, investments would be paid for by ticket sales, with further revenues from special advertising displays on the walls of the capsule, in place of windows.
The Munich startup Reflekt, which creates virtual reality applications for industry, is developing the visual technology. For HTT, a 35-person-team is working on interactive monitors to display landscapes, films, current travel information or advertising, said Reflekt’s marketing director Dirk Schart.
The startup, like vacuum specialist Oerlikon Leybold, is investing a lot of time and money without payment in return. HTT, which is scheduled to go public this year, promises stock options instead.
Mr. Schart said the risk is worth it. “This has allowed us to build up a huge network in the U.S. technology sector,” he said.
The Munich student research team also dreams of a big breakthrough as they work on their 4.2-meter-long model.
The team leader is Mariana Avezum, a 26-year-old IT student, and the technical leader is Johannes Gutsmiedl, a 23-year-old aerospace technology student. It started out as a vague idea for Ms. Avezum’s masters thesis, and grew into a project worth €350,000, supported by prominent sponsors like Airbus and Evonik.
Mr. Gutsmiedl coordinates technical operations for the group, which has already beaten hundreds of rivals. To face the remaining competition, including teams from universities like Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Mr. Gutsmiedl is counting on a special feature.
“What is unique to our model is the compressor,” he said.
It resembles an airplane turbine and sucks up air that collects in front of the capsule. The air is channeled to the back through a tunnel under the vehicle, and thereby further reduces air resistance.
Many questions remain for Hyperloop technology, though, said Joachim Winter of the German Aerospace Center.
“How do you get people out of the tube in case of a breakdown?” he asked. “And where is there space for luggage?”
Another issue? “The Hyperloop only offers a time advantage if there are very few stops along the way.”
In densely populated Europe, that would be unrealistic, Mr. Winter explained. That’s one reason the Transrapid route between Cologne and the Ruhr district was never built.
The economic geographer Rudolf Juchelka from Duisburg-Essen University went a step further.
“In contrast to the United States,” he said, “the public-transportation network is fully developed in Europe. What’s more, in many places there is no room for tubes on stilts.”
He believes plans for a Hyperloop between Bratislava and Vienna are nothing more than a PR ploy, because there’s far too little traffic between the two closest European capitals.
But the Munich students aren’t distracted from their project. Many of them spend up to 70 hours a week in the workshop building their capsule.
The university doesn’t provide any money or academic credits, but the commitment is worth it, said Mr. Gutsmiedl.
“This is a unique opportunity,” he said.
This article originally appeared in the business magazine WirtschaftsWoche. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org